In part one of this three-part series, I explored how hypervigilance develops in the first place and how it’s not only useful, but at times a vital protective tool for individuals, couples, and families. In part two, I’m emphasizing four ways that hypervigilance, despite its usefulness, tends to let individuals and their partners down in some substantive ways:
Like most traits born out of trauma, there comes a time when hypervigilance begins to let people down in relationships. When you experience being out in front of everyone else enough times, you begin to, understandably, see yourself as having a mind that functions like a crystal ball, particularly when it’s about critical threats. As this continual “rightness” is reinforced over time, hypervigilant individuals can stop being curious about their partners, as well as friends or family members, and superimpose their experience of feeling all-knowing onto every situation.
This opens a doorway to a moralistic, black-and-white, rigid way of thinking and being with which partners must contend. If you’re always right, in terms of accuracy or moralistic judgment, it will inevitably make a partner always feel wrong. Or more specifically, as if there’s no room to express doubt, disagree, or request time and space to think through their own needs, thoughts, feelings and plans.
The Validation Tug of War
At the same time, hypervigilant people feel let down because they’re always the ones who seem to be on top of all of the things, all of the time, but without the validation from their partner. Partners can find it difficult to understand or take all the threats their hypervigilant partner sees seriously. Sometimes this is because the threats are rooted in trauma-based triggers rather than reality, and sometimes because partners haven’t looked far enough down the road to see the very real threat that exists at the end of it (this is a manifestation of privilege: some people can be more flexible, more spontaneous, more playful, or curious because their default is to believe that the world is safe, rather than a place riddled with acute threats).
Partners can have some reticence in giving their hypervigilant partner validation for being right because they think: “If I validate this one thing, it means I’m signaling that they’re always right about everything.” In this case, withholding validation on anything and everything becomes protective for the partner and depriving for the hypervigilant partner. And both partners aren’t getting their needs met.
Creating Shame for Both Partners
Hypervigilance also can create shame for both partners. Hypervigilant kids often long for thrilling, albeit risky, experiences, such as vulnerable exchanges of affection, angry responses to conflict, or spontaneous adventure. They tend to use harsh critical judgment to shame these parts of themselves in order to quiet their longing. As adults, then, when their partners pursue these things in a cavalier way, they often reach for shame as a familiar coping mechanism. Adults might externalize their shame and project it onto their partner, making partners feel shame as well.
Overfunctioning & Feeling Alone
Hypervigilant folks can also feel profoundly alone in their worry. Typically when kids come from unsafe homes, they are literally alone in their fear and planning. In a lot of cases, they are the most capable family member. In times of stress, I see a lot of hypervigilant folks turn inward, only relying on the one person they can trust: themselves. This solitude is comforting because it is perceived as “safe” and familiar, but unhelpful when it comes to sharing labor and managing fear, especially fear that is amorphous or doesn’t have an acute end date (for example, during shelter-in-place or furloughs). It also leads to overfunctioning.
Overfunctioning and being alone with fear quickly becomes unsustainable; there exists a need to rely on other people to help carry the weight of fear and stress (fear is sometimes felt like a 100lb weight–when your partner holds some fear, the weight you are holding is reduced and you feel lighter). Currently, many hypervigilant individuals also literally must rely on partners for their incomes, caretaking if they are sick, and to be their sole companion. This increased need to depend on others is met with an often rigid resistance to receiving care or relinquishing control, and both partners find themselves stuck.